The Murdaugh family saga: a tangled web of secrets and murder

Sandy Smith holds a photo of her late son, Stephen Smith, in June. "There will never be another one like him," she said.

By Faith Karimi, CNN

(CNN) -- A powerful family. A deadly boating accident. Two mysterious slayings. Drug addiction, stolen money and a botched shooting in an alleged insurance fraud scheme.

It sounds like someone took a list of sordid elements and stuffed them all into a crime thriller so twisty it could only be fiction.

But the tortuous tale of the Murdaughs, a prominent South Carolina family with shadowy secrets, is real. And it's far from over.

The story took a fresh turn this week when investigators arrested patriarch Alex Murdaugh for allegedly hiring a hit man to kill him in a failed attempt to collect millions in life insurance for his surviving son, Buster. This came three months after Murdaugh's wife and other son were gunned down on the family's secluded estate.

These events led authorities to open investigations into several other mysterious deaths -- dating back years -- with apparent ties to the Murdaughs.

Now the family's legacy of influence is crumbling and the rural area around Hampton, some 75 miles west of Charleston, is buzzing with theories. The evolving saga has inspired at least one podcast and gripped amateur sleuths around the state -- and the nation.

"Around coffee shops and barber shops, that's all people have been talking about," said Akim Anastopoulo, a Charleston attorney and former prosecutor who has crossed paths with Alex Murdaugh. "You cannot believe how this thing changes every day. The new information that comes out -- it's amazing because everyone is living this in real time."

The mystery indeed has a tangled web of characters and events. To unpack it all, we have to go back at least six years.

A family history of power and connections

The Murdaughs have long been a potent legal dynasty in this part of the Carolina Lowcountry, a quiet stretch of farms, woods, marshland and small towns that feel far removed from the tourist bustle of Charleston or even Hilton Head, some 60 miles south.

For nearly a century, the family controlled the local prosecutor's office.

Beginning in 1920, Randolph Murdaugh Sr. was the first in three generations of solicitors for the 14th Judicial Circuit, which oversees prosecutions in five counties. His son, Randolph Murdaugh Jr., succeeded him in the position for nearly five decades.

Randolph Murdaugh III -- Alex Murdaugh's dad -- then replaced him and served through 2005, marking 87 consecutive years that the family led prosecutions in the area.

But even with the family no longer running the prosecutor's office, their connections run deep.

The Murdaughs, including Alex and his younger brother Randy, have long been partners in a regional law firm with offices in three counties. They have focused mostly on personal injury litigation and have won big settlements for their clients.

"We're no different than anybody else. We've just been here as attorneys for a long time," Randy Murdaugh told ABC News in June. "I see words like 'dynasty' used, and 'power.' But we're just regular people ..."

Randolph Murdaugh III died in June at the age of 81 -- three days after his daughter-in-law and grandson were killed.

A boat crash in the middle of the night

The Murdaughs' troubles, at least in the eyes of the public, began in February 2019.

Paul Murdaugh, younger son of Alex Murdaugh, was piloting his father's motorboat with five friends early in the morning of February 24 when it struck a bridge on Archer's Creek, near Parris Island. He was 19 at the time and a student at the University of South Carolina.

One of his passengers, Mallory Beach, also 19, was tossed from the boat. Her body was found a week later.

A 911 call was placed from the crash site at roughly 2:30 a.m.

Three people aboard the boat later told investigators that Paul Murdaugh was driving, although another passenger identified a different person as the driver, according to an affidavit.

Investigators searching the boat found a cooler full of beer along with empty cans and bottles of alcohol, according to CNN affiliate WJCL.

Authorities charged Paul Murdaugh with boating under the influence, causing great bodily harm and causing Beach's death.

He pleaded not guilty and was still awaiting trial when tragedy struck the family again.

A mother and son killed at the family estate

On June 7, emergency dispatchers in Colleton County received a 911 call from a distraught Alex Murdaugh.

He told them he had just arrived at the family's 1,700-acre estate in Islandton, an unincorporated hamlet, to find the bodies of his wife Maggie and son Paul lying on the ground by their dog kennels.

"It's bad," he said.

Maggie Murdaugh, 52, had been shot multiple times with a semiautomatic rifle. Paul Murdaugh, by then 22, had been shot at least twice with a shotgun.

"And are they breathing?" asked the dispatcher.

"No ma'am," Murdaugh said.

The gruesome scene pointed to two shooters, leaving some observers wondering if it was connected to the family's legal history. Paul Murdaugh's uncles told ABC News that he had been receiving threatening messages online since the boating accident.

Alex Murdaugh, 53, has denied responsibility in the killings, which remain unsolved.

"My brother loved Maggie and loved Paul like nothing else on this earth..." Randy Murdaugh told ABC News. "So there's no possible way he could have anything to do with this, I can assure you."

The slayings thrust the family into the national spotlight and have so far baffled police.

They also brought new scrutiny to two previous deaths.

A mysterious body on a country road

In June, as investigators probed the shooting deaths of Alex Murdaugh's wife and son, they made a startling announcement.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) said it was opening an investigation into the death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith, whose body was found July 8, 2015, on a rural road some 8 miles west of the Murdaugh estate.

At the time, police said Smith had a massive head wound and they believed he'd been struck by a vehicle. No suspect was ever charged.

Authorities have not revealed what new information led them to reopen the investigation into Smith's death.

Smith and Buster Murdaugh, 25, were classmates at Wade Hampton High School.

The Murdaughs have not been accused of wrongdoing in his case, and no evidence has connected the family to Smith's death.

But Smith's mother told CNN affiliate WCIV in June that she doesn't believe her son was the victim of a hit-and-run.

Reopening of the investigation was long overdue, Sandy Smith said.

"We've been waiting on this forever," she told the affiliate. "Stephen's always been put on the back burner. It's like nobody's looking for answers. Stephen's had no justice."

A bizarre roadside shooting

Most of the summer passed uneventfully. Then, on September 4, the Murdaugh saga took yet another turn.

That day Alex Murdaugh called 911 and said he'd been shot in the head by an unidentified man while changing a tire on the side of the road not far from his home.

A family spokesperson said the family expected Murdaugh to recover and asked for privacy, saying, "The Murdaugh family has suffered through more than any one family could ever imagine."

But a week later Murdaugh admitted to authorities that he had conspired with the man -- identified by police as Curtis Edward Smith, a former client of Murdaugh -- to kill him as part of an insurance fraud scheme.

Murdaugh had hoped his surviving son Buster could collect a $10 million life insurance payout, according to an affidavit to support charges against Smith.

Murdaugh wanted to end his life, but believed his life insurance policy had a suicide exclusion, said his attorney, who added that his client wanted to protect his only living child. Murdaugh provided Smith with a firearm and told him to shoot him in the head, the affidavit said.

Murdaugh also announced he had resigned from his law firm following allegations he had misappropriated funds, and said he was entering rehab for what one of his attorneys later specified was an addiction to opioids.

"The murders of my wife and son have caused an incredibly difficult time in my life," Murdaugh said in a statement. "I have made a lot of decisions that I truly regret."

Then the mystery deepened even further.

A housekeeper's fatal fall

On Wednesday, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said it was opening a criminal probe into the February 2018 death of Gloria Satterfield, a housekeeper who'd spent more than two decades working for the Murdaugh family.

Satterfield, 57, died at the Murdaugh estate in what was declared at the time as a "trip and fall accident," according to attorney Eric Bland, who is representing her estate.

SLED said it is opening the investigation based upon a request from the Hampton County coroner that highlights inconsistencies in the ruling of Satterfield's manner of death, as well as information gathered during other ongoing probes involving Alex Murdaugh.

The coroner's request said that no autopsy was performed on Satterfield and that "on the death certificate the manner of death was ruled 'Natural,' which is inconsistent with injuries sustained in a trip and fall accident."

This week, Bland also filed a civil lawsuit alleging Murdaugh proposed the housekeeper's two sons sue him so they could collect their mother's life insurance settlement. Murdaugh then introduced the sons to a fellow attorney to represent them in the lawsuit without disclosing to them that the attorney was a close friend, Bland said.

Satterfield's sons received a partial settlement of $505,000 but have not seen any of it to date, the lawsuit states.

CNN has reached out to Murdaugh's attorneys for comment.

And the twists and turns may be far from over

Alex Murdaugh has been charged with insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, and filing a false police report. His law license has been suspended.

"It's just such a crazy circumstance of events," said Anastopoulo, the Charleston attorney. "People that know them (the Murdaughs) are extremely shocked that this happened, because he's a well respected attorney."

Murdaugh was arrested Thursday and appeared in court in handcuffs before being released on bond. The redhead known to friends as "Big Red" looked thinner and grayer than he had in previous family snapshots. At one point he appeared to wipe tears from his eyes.

In a statement to CNN, his attorneys, Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, said their client "is not without fault." But they blamed his issues on an opioid addiction.

"These individuals took advantage of his addiction and his ability to pay substantial funds for illegal drugs," the attorneys said. "One of those individuals took advantage of his mental illness and agreed to take Alex's life by shooting him in the head."

Murdaugh has announced a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the parties responsible for the deaths of his wife and son.

Meanwhile, the criminal investigations continue on multiple fronts. Reporters are scouring the region for anyone who might have insight into the Murdaughs. And everyone wonders what's coming next.

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Share this article: